BAGHDAD - The Islamic State is creeping back into parts of central Iraq just seven months after the government declared victory in the war against the group, embarking on a wave of kidnappings, assassinations and bombings that have raised fears a new cycle of insurgency is starting again.
The small-scale attacks are taking place mostly in remote areas that have been neglected by the government and are chillingly reminiscent of the kind of tactics that characterized the Islamic State insurgency in the years before 2014, when the group captured a vast swathe of territory across Iraq and Syria.
The militants have since been driven out of all but two small pockets in Syria near the Iraqi border, where they are surrounded by U.S.-backed or Syrian government forces. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared "final victory" over the Islamic State in December, and President Donald Trump said in Helsinki on Monday that the battle is now "98 percent, 99 percent" complete.
The resurgence of violence, in a triangle of sparsely populated territory stretching across the provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk and Salahuddin, has prompted many Iraqis to question whether the victory declaration was premature.
Over the past two months, dozens of people, including local government officials, tribal elders and village chiefs have been abducted and killed or ransomed by fighters claiming affiliation with the Islamic State. Electricity infrastructure and oil pipelines have been blown up. Armed men dressed as security forces and manning fake checkpoints have hijacked trucks and robbed travelers, rendering the main Baghdad-Kirkuk highway unsafe for a period of weeks.
In one of the most sinister attacks, six members of the Iraqi security forces were captured at one of the fake checkpoints and forced to appear in a somewhat wobbly video. Kneeling before the black-and-white Islamic State flag and flanked by two heavily bearded figures, the men took turns warning they would be killed if the Iraqi government did not release Sunni women prisoners. Days later, the bullet ridden bodies of the men were found dumped in the area.
The video jolted Iraqis, stirring memories of the worst of the Islamic State's excesses during the years that it ruled over its self-proclaimed "caliphate." Traffic on the Baghdad-Kirkuk highway came to a near standstill as nervous travelers refrained from driving and instead booked flights, which sold out weeks in advance.
"Of course people are nervous. People finally thought there was stability and that they can travel wherever they want, and then there are these attacks and this video and people are afraid again," said Imad Mahmoud, a member of the Diyala Provincial Council. "The terrorists are attacking from the empty desert and the mountains where there are still small cells. They are not large in number but they are launching surprise, fast attacks and they have people inside the towns who are helping them."
It was inevitable that the Islamic State would attempt a comeback after its crushing defeat, said Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi counterterrorism expert based in Baghdad who advises the government. But, he said, "they are returning faster than I anticipated. That they have returned this fast is very dangerous."
He blames the government's failure to deliver aid and reconstruction to an area that was among the first to be freed from Islamic State control but has seen little in the way of assistance. "The Iraqi government did well on the military side but it didn't do well in bringing stability to those areas. It is to the advantage of ISIS that the government has not implemented any of its plans."
This latest iteration of the insurgency is a long way from being in a position to capture whole cities or control territory, analysts and military officials say. The Iraqi security forces have launched operations over the past two weeks aimed at rooting out the militants, and they have claimed some successes.
The government has declared that the Baghdad-Kirkuk road is now safe, and drivers and passengers who take the route say there are new checkpoints every kilometer. An operation this week by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, succeeded in eradicating an Islamic State safe haven that had emerged in mountains near the town of Makhmour, the U.S. military said Tuesday in a statement.
But attacks have persisted in areas away from security sweeps, and it is unclear whether the government is reversing the militants' momentum. Government attention is now being further diverted by a political crisis in Baghdad, where negotiations for the formation of a new government after fraud-tainted elections in May are being delayed by a recount of the ballots and by the eruption of widespread anti-government protests in the mostly Shiite provinces of the south.
The Iraqi security forces are in better shape today to contain the violence than they were in 2014, when whole divisions fled the Islamic State advance, said Col. Sean Ryan, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "They're just doing small scale attacks because they don't have large scale abilities any more," he said. "But what they do have is the ability to scare the population. The fight is not over, and if people are putting their guard down, it's a little too early."
Although the Islamic State doesn't control territory in the way it did before, it does appear to have freedom of movement across a large stretch of terrain and especially at night, said Michael Knights, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The territory in question spans an area that was only briefly held by the Islamic State before forces mostly comprised of Shiite militias swept through and drove the militants out in late 2014 and early 2015. The fighting displaced tens of thousands of people, most of whom have not returned, leaving scores of largely destroyed, depopulated villages scattered across inhospitable terrain.
These ghost towns offer a perfect environment for a guerrilla army to regroup, Knights said. The surrounding areas include mountains, densely vegetated palm forests and networks of irrigation canals that are unsuitable for the kind of heavy mechanized Iraqi army sweeps that serve, at best, to "mow the grass," he said.
"There's no real evidence that that's working and there's a lot of evidence that ISIS is recovering," he said.
"It was very predictable that the ISIS guys would reboot the strongest in this area. These are the most difficult ungoverned spaces in Iraq for the Iraqi security forces to garrison, and it is also the place where ISIS has had the longest to regroup," Knights added. "They can't control territory but they can control roads and they can move at night."
Some fighters involved in the recent attacks are believed to be remnants of the original force that took over the area four years ago and hid out in the nearby Hamreen mountains, which were never fully cleared, Hashemi said. Others are fighters who escaped the battles over the past year in western Iraq and Hawija outside Kirkuk. He estimates there could be as many as 2,000 fighters operating in small cells across the three provinces.
They appear to be acting in accordance with instructions issued in an April audiotape released by the Islamic State's current spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, in which he urged surviving Islamic State fighters to conduct attacks targeting Iraq's economic infrastructure and Iraqi Sunnis who collaborate with the government.
“This is a model they’ve maintained in the past, and it seems they’re moving ahead and gaining momentum” said Renad Mansour of the London-based Chatham House think tank. “There’s a lot of frustration over why Abadi declared victory when it seems they are still there. It seems the insurgency is starting again.”